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Appealing Chris Rock sitcom puts sweet face on serious issues

The best comedy has its roots set in honesty, which is something Chris Rock knows. The comic likes to use his crackly, disbelieving voice to openly name gnarly cultural and political truths about America. Under the stealth of high-pitched bemusement and joviality, he puts the lie to all kinds of popular myths -- about Hollywood, about governmental logic, about ebony and ivory living together in perfect harmony.

His new sitcom, ''Everybody Hates Chris," takes a similar approach to comedy. On one level, the show, which premieres tonight at 8 on Channel 38, is a sweetly familiar coming-of-age tale about Rock's Brooklyn, N.Y. youth in the 1980s. Featuring Rock as the voiceover narrator, it's tinged with ''Wonder Years"-like nostalgia and family-based farce, as 13-year-old Chris suffers indignities next to his handsome brother and adorable sister. Rock also provides loving portraits of his quirky parents -- worrywart father Julius (Terry Crews) and high-strung mother Rochelle (Tichina Arnold), who, Rock says, ''had 100 recipes for whoopin' ass."

But on another level, ''Everybody Hates Chris" is about the socioeconomic realities that most sitcoms don't bother with. You don't have to think about the race and class issues embedded in the UPN show, but once you do, you realize its affectionate laughs are attached to hard times. Much levity occurs when Chris has to wake his father at 5 p.m. on the nose, for instance, but then it's all predicated on the fact that Julius works multiple jobs to keep his family out of the projects. Of course, Julius has no idea he's working to keep them in a neighborhood -- Bedford-Stuyvesant -- about to become ''the center of a crack epidemic," as Rock puts it.

Young Chris (Tyler James Williams) is an appealing hero -- put-upon but stoic and smart. His mother forces him to ride two buses every day to attend an all-white school, saying, ''Those white kids, they get an education." On the second bus, the white passengers won't sit next to him, and at school, Chris is the only black kid on the premises. He is picked on by a chubby bully who spits comments at him such as ''After school, Satchmo." Used to being the heavy at home, where his little sister successfully blames him for every drop of spilled milk, he withstands the abuse with his humor intact. It's familiar material -- a dumb bully, a schoolyard fight -- but it has a nice poignancy here. Clearly, these early experiences are providing Chris with the sharpness that will later become his stock in trade.

As Chris's parents, Crews and Arnold are a strong addition to the show. Crews's Julius is extremely money-conscious, calculating to the penny the price of every burnt biscuit. But Crews makes him into a warm figure whose tough side is clearly all bluster. On a block where only four families still have live-at-home fathers, Rock notes, ''coming home was his way of saying, 'I love you.' " Arnold's Rochelle is hard as nails, but she has great ambitions for her children and great love for her stubborn husband. She's a strong matriarch.

It will be interesting to see where ''Everybody Hates Chris" goes. So many series start off with a tight pilot episode and then lose direction or fall into thematic ruts. If Rock and co-creator Ali LeRoi can continue to bring depth to the characters without succumbing to cliche or sentiment, they will be on a promising path. Unfortunately, UPN has scheduled the show in an extremely challenging time slot. It's opposite a handful of hits, including ''Survivor," ''Alias," ''Joey," and ''The O.C.," and it will have an uphill battle to draw in viewers even for an initial try.

Alas, breaking established viewing patterns is never easy, even when the new kid in town is solid as a rock.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

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